CANADA: Native Way of Life Vanishing into the Clear-Cut
By Am Johal
VANCOUVER, Oct 9 (IPS) - As the Ontario election draws to a close on Wednesday, a long-running land rights battle continues in the east-central Canadian province between First Nations groups and mining and logging interests that have been granted concessions to exploit the resources in a vast boreal forest known as Grassy Narrows.
Asubpeeschoseewagong, the indigenous or Ojibway name for Grassy Narrows, is situated 80 kilometres north of Kenora, Ontario. The band membership is approximately 1,000, and their traditional land use area spans some 4,000 kilometres. About half of the community still follows a subsistence way of life that relies on hunting, trapping, and gathering berries and medicines from the land.
The community says that 50 percent of their traditional lands have already been clear-cut by multinational logging companies, and the current licenses issued by Ontario authorities will permit continued clear-cutting for more than 25 more years.
"Mining issues continue and permits are handed out despite the Supreme Court decision around native land rights," John Cutfeet of the nearby Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nations near Grassy Narrows told IPS.
The Grassy Narrows First Nation is within an 1873 treaty that recognises the right of the Anishnaabe peoples "to pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing throughout the tract." Recent Supreme Court decisions have upheld the government's duty to conduct meaningful discussions with native groups before carrying out projects that impact their lands.
In early September, the Ontario government appointed former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to facilitate a negotiated process and make recommendations to solve the impasse. Talks are expected to begin in November.
"Companies are drilling without following the rule of law," Cutfeet said. "There has been virtually no consultation or accommodation of our people. Treaty land was a fulfillment of the land claims process. The government and the companies have an illegal presence in our territories."
The Grassy Narrows community has suffered many traumas over the years, including forced attendance in Canada's notorious and now-defunct boarding schools, forced relocation away from their traditional living areas, flooding of sacred grounds and burial sites by hydroelectric dam projects, and clear-cut logging of their forests. Mercury waste from a paper mill constructed in the 1970s contaminated local rivers and created devastating long-term health problems.
Compared to other racial and cultural groups in Canada, indigenous people have the lowest life expectancies, highest infant mortality rates, most substandard and overcrowded housing, lower education and employment levels, and the highest incarceration rates. Native people lead in the statistics of suicide, alcoholism, and family abuse.
Brant Olson of the Rainforest Action Project told IPS, "Amnesty International and many groups have verified the problems at Grassy Narrows. The historical and political context is dire due to the logging industry. Since the mid-1960s, large portions of the community have been uninhabitable and there have been enduring health problems and 25 percent unemployment. That led to the Grassy Narrows group to call for a moratorium on development [in January]. We want to ensure that buyers of the wood honour the moratorium."
"The community doesn't trust the intentions of companies like Abitibi Consolidated and Weyerhauser," said Olson.
Jim Loney, a member of the Christian Peacemakers Team, which had a delegation in the region, told IPS that the traditional land use area where they hunt, trap and fish has been logged by the forestry company Abitibi-Consolidated. According to Loney, trap lines have disappeared into the clear-cuts, some of which are a kilometre long.
In December 2002, a group of people from the community, including high school students, formed a blockade to stop clear-cutting. Human rights organisations such as the Christian Peacemakers Team and Amnesty International came to Ontario at the invitation of Grassy Narrows Environmental Committee to be present at the site of the blockade.
International civil society organisations have since helped to build political support for the objectives of the blockade and have alerted U.N. authorities. "There has been a lot of reaching out, educating the public, building allies and alliances, and building solidarity in support of the Grassy Narrows community," said Loney.
Last month, environmental and aboriginal groups unfurled a 75-metre-long arrow-shaped banner on the lawn of the Ontario legislature that demanded "Native Land Rights Now." The public demonstration was organised by Rainforest Action Network and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Rainforest Action Network is organising a campaign to try to stop lumber giant Weyerhauser from obtaining wood from clear-cutting.
Loney added that provincial and federal governments should honour their commitments and responsibilities with First Nations people and consult on matters related to the use of native land. As mining and forestry companies are moving ahead with development, there are concerns about creating a high-profile and credible process to mediate the land rights dispute.
First Nation representatives at the Sep. 21 event described how such projects degrade the land, disrupt traditional cultural practices, and reverse economic rights guaranteed to them under the Canadian Constitution.
"We, the grassroots people of the Anishnabeg, have an obligation to protect the land and the culture and our way of life for the future of our children and grandchildren," Judy Da Silva of the Grassy Narrows First Nations said in a statement.